When I was in my twenties I owned an 8x10 camera and a single lens. I used this simple combination for six years. When I look back at that body of work I see some of my strongest images, even though I was young and was still trying to understand photography.
The world we live in is full of constant options and an endless stream of decisions that need to be made each day. Unfortunately, the more complicated our lives get, the less creative and efficient we become. Marketing is all about selling options. In order for a company to survive, it must constantly provide the consumer new options. Camera manufacturers are some of the best at creating hype and pressure to purchase new equipment. They tell us if we don't, our potential to create amazing images will be lost to those who constantly upgrade.
The irony is that photography is a very simple process and very little is needed to create meaningful images. One of the main tools I use to help my workshop students boost creativity and simplify their photography is to have them dedicate themselves for a long period of time to a single lens. Most people in our western culture are extremely resistant to such rigidness. They view that type of structure as oppressive and limiting. But if we look beyond our own culture, we will see that strict discipline has and continues to be used to for creative endeavors. One of my favorite examples is the Japanese Haiku; a beautifully rigid expression of a single moment.
The single lens forces us to be creative, try new vantage points, and push ourselves out of our comfort zone. It forces us to see differently with more clarity and strength. It is strict and limiting, but only because we believe we need more options. In reality what we need is less, what we need is to simplify the process of image taking.
But which lens? Another decision! The most effective is a prime lens within our range of normal sight, somewhere between 24 and 100mm. Many fine art photographers consider the 40mm prime to be the perfect vocal length. A single prime takes the most commitment but yields the most rewards. One of the most liberating primes is the macro lens. Some of my best trips and strongest images have come from trips where I only brought a macro lens. Spending a week in the backcountry or on a vacation with just a 50mm macro lens can truly open your eyes to a whole new world and explode your creativity.
Some teachers recommend using extreme wide angles or telephoto lenses to spark creativity. This can work on the short term, but long term the extremes begin to lose their appeal. When a photographer uses the extremes on a regular basis their work begins to look repetitive and boring, the Wow value of the extremes only last so long. Another reason to avoid extremes is that it is really hard to see like them. Once you spend enough time with a single lens you will begin see just like it, it will become an extension of your eye. You can look at a scene and know if it will work or not, without ever pulling the camera out of the bag. Photography becomes more fluid, more efficient and with time, more creative. The lack of focal length options becomes a blessing, not a limitation.
Each lens manufactured has a sweet spot- a spot where a lens truly shines through a combination of aperture and focus distance. When you discover the sweet spot it can be a revelation. Even some of the cheaper lenses have a point where they perform with great quality. It takes a lot of time with a single lens to discover its strengths and its weaknesses, but it's worth it and you'll see a great improvement in image quality.
I would love to say that I only use a single prime lens for everything, but as a professional, it's not practical. Clients, the ones paying the bills, demand a variety of angles to appease their restless eyes. But that doesn't mean I completely abandon my single lens philosophy. I still work with one lens, but instead of a prime, I work with a single limited range zoom. The 24-70 is my primary lens. I would say 90% of the images I take are taken with that one lens. It's the lens I take on all of my wilderness trips. Because I avoid the extremes and stay in a limited range that is within our normal sight, I can still see like my zoom and I still know its strengths and weaknesses. The zoom does add an element of choice that can disrupt the creative process a little, but I am familiar enough with its qualities that my process is still efficient, creative and stress free.
The final benefit of using a single lens, prime or limited zoom, is the ability to let images go. I have watched photographers go insane, running around like mad, frantically switching lenses and filters, trying to capture a scene. Sometimes scenes, no matter how wonderful, just don't work. The single lens approach teaches us not to force a photograph and that itís okay to keep the camera in the bag, sit back and enjoy nature's visual splendors.
So if you're feeling like your photography is in a rut and your creativity is stifled, instead of adding more gear to your quiver, try using less!
Carl Battreall - NPN 3238
Carl Battreall has been working as a professional photographer for over twenty years. Carl's traditional photography background, combined with his excellent wilderness skills, have made him one of the most unique and influential photographers working in Alaska today.
View more of Carl's work at www.photographalaska.com and his new book project blog, The Alaska Range project, at www.alaskarange.wordpress.com.